Why There’s No Such Thing as Overnight Success

You can't life hack your way to success (no matter what LinkedIn influencers say).

For Ariana Huffington, it’s sleep. Robin Sharma says it’s waking up early.

Ekhart Tolle says it’s stillness. Tom Rath says it’s movement. Marie Kondo says it’s tidying up.

When life feels hectic, the idea that you can change just one thing to change your life is tempting.

There’s nothing Americans love more than an easy success story.

You don’t see this anywhere more frequently than on LinkedIn. Entrepreneurs and businessfolk post inspirational stories in a style not much different than line poetry.

They get thousands of likes and shares. Some call it “hustle porn.” Others call it “broetry.”

It works because of who it comes from. LinkedIn influencers are successful CEOs and CFOs. If they’re successful, they must be right. Right?

But what if that’s not the best way to think about success? What if there’s no key, no quick fix, no life hack?

The real life hack is being born rich

“The single founder myth— charismatic leader, usually male, single handedly creates companies— is centered around success as an immediate goal, or the byproduct of hard work,” said Silvia Dutchevici, a psychotherapist and life coach. “These narratives leave out the part of the story about luck, privilege and contributions from an entire team.”

According to Dutchevici, these kinds of stories make us think that if we work hard enough, we can be successful. If we don’t succeed, it’s all our fault.

But, critically, they also ignore the structural barriers that can help some of us succeed, and make some of us fall behind. Things like racism, sexism and economic inequality.

In truth, social mobility is incredibly rare, and it’s getting rarer. What your parents do for a living has a huge impact on your own career and earning prospects.

If your parents are CEOs, you’re not advantaged just because you’re set to inherit their money. Wealthy parents are also more engaged, pay for better schooling, and can help with a downpayment for a house or paying for college.

These things put wealthy or even middle class kids ahead of poorer kids at the start.

Success is personal

Structural barriers aside, everyone has some amount of agency in their own career. But even so, there’s no real quick fix to success. That’s because success is personal.

Modern workplace culture puts a lot of emphasis on young successes, entrepreneurs who made it big when they were still in their 20s. You see this in the barrage of 30 under 30 lists.

That can make people in their 20s feel like they’re falling behind if they’re not finding that sort of success, and folks in their 30s — and beyond — feel like failures if they haven’t yet hit their goals.

But there’s no real reason for this focus on youth. Most people don’t hit their max earning potential until they’re in their early 50s.

There are tons of famous examples of this. Julia Child didn’t sell her first cookbook until she was 50. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first “Little House” book at age 65. Samuel L. Jackson got his first big movie role at 43.

“I always tell job candidates and people who need help with their career to think long-term,” said Michael Tomaszewski, career expert at ResumeLab. “How does this small step lead to another step in the overall scheme of your career? It starts off small and leads to something great, but it requires putting in the hard work and knowing that success isn’t going to happen overnight.”

You don’t see everything

Just as influencers’ Instagram posts are curated to show just the best parts of their lives, influencers’ LinkedIn posts are meant to show off their successes. Even those that appear to show failures are written to make the poster look their best.

Many of these posts are framed to have a quick takeaway because that’s the best way to hold a reader’s attention, says Melissa Gratias, a productivity expert who has published hundreds of articles on LinkedIn.

But in reality, the story is never as simple as it appears, and advice never applies to everyone.

“I was at an awards ceremony for small business owners and one of the honorees opened up his acceptance speech with the statement, ‘We are a 25-year overnight success story,’” Gratias said. “He then went on to describe the failures, heartbreaks, long hours and eventual success that marked his career.”

The man’s point? No one was following him during his darkest years, all the time he stressed over finances and didn’t sleep.

They started paying attention once he was successful. That can make success appear instant, even though it was far from it.

Aside from the fame that comes with an instant-success story, there’s also financial gain with it. Folks in the business world want to be around folks who look like they’re succeeding.

Success begets success.

“Market imperatives pressure us to not just make more money but to look like we are making money in order to attract the people and opportunities that might help us make more money,” business coach Elea Carey said. “I suspect that’s what people who are promoting success hacks are in the business of, this false magnetism.”

But Carey said a more “slow-and-steady” approach is more fulfilling in the long run. Take your time building connections with folks in your industry. Take time building your own personal brand.

“More trusting relationships with clients, less anxiety and a stronger sense of self,” she said. “That’s the kind of ‘longcut’ rather than shortcut, I’m interested in.”

Shortcuts, no matter what they’re for, can feel much more attractive. We even see them turned into viral YouTube content in the form of “life hacks.”

They claim to be easy fixes for any sort of problem, business or otherwise.

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They’re made for clicks.

Studies show humans are born to want control over our own lives, and having a sense that we’re in the driver’s seat can even make us live longer. So it’s no surprise that content like this does well.

When our lives feel out of control, we want is a quick fix to get it back on track.

It’s our fault, these say, if we don’t have a perfect body, or work just four hours a week, or have a bunch of friends.

But not all is as it seems. Many of these YouTube videos have been criticized recently for not actually working as intended.

You shouldn’t make grilled cheese in your toaster, or use a toilet paper roll as an iPhone speaker.

Even if it’s tempting.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.